The Siege of Savannah
was an encounter of the
in 1779. The year before, the city of Savannah,
Georgia, had been captured by a British expeditionary corps under Lieutenant-Colonel
The siege itself consisted of a joint Franco-American
attempt to retake
Savannah from September 16 to October 18, 1779. On October 9 a
major assault against the British siege works failed. During the attack,
Polish nobleman Kazimierz
Pułaski, fighting on the American side, was
With the failure of the joint
American-French attack, the siege
the British remained in control of Savannah until July 1782, close
to the end of the war.
is much remembered in Haitian history; the
Saint-Domingue, consisting of over 500 gens de couleur—free men of color from Saint-Domingue—fought on the French side.
, who later became
king of independent Haiti, is thought to have been among these
troops. Many other less notable Haitians served in
this unit and formed the officer class of the rebel armies in the
Haitian Revolution, especially in
the North Province around today's Cap Haitien where the unit was recruited.
the failures of military campaigns in the northern United States earlier in the American Revolutionary War,
British military planners decided to embark on a "southern
strategy" to conquer the rebellious colonies with the support of
Loyalist in the
southern states. Their first step was to gain control of the
southern ports of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. An expedition in December 1778 captured
Savannah with modest resistance from ineffective militia and
Continental Army defenses.
The Continental Army regrouped, and by June 1779 the combined army
and militia forces guarding Charleston numbered between 5,000 and
7,000 men. General Benjamin
Lincoln, commanding those forces, knew that he could not
recapture Savannah without naval assistance; for this he turned to
the French, who had
entered the war as an American
ally in 1778.
Admiral the Comte d'Estaing spent
the first part of 1779 in the Caribbean, where his fleet and a British fleet monitored each
He took advantage of conditions to
in July before
acceding to American requests for support in operations against
Savannah. On September 3, an uncharacteristically early arrival as
there was still substantial risk of hurricanes
, a few French ships arrived at
Charleston with news that d'Estaing was sailing for Georgia with 25
ships of the line
and 4,000 French
troops. Lincoln and the French emissaries agreed on a plan of
attack on Savannah, and Lincoln left Charleston with over 2,000 men
on September 11.
troop strength in the area consisted of about 1,500 regulars at Savannah, another 900 at Beaufort,
South Carolina under Col. John
Maitland, and about 100 Loyalists at Sunbury,
General Augustine Prevost
, in command of these
troops from his base in Savannah, was caught completely off guard
when the French fleet began to arrive off Savannah. Harnessing
labor, his engineers directed the
construction nearly of defenses on the plains outside the city.
Prevost also recalled the troops from Beaufort and Sunbury.
D'Estaing began landing troops below the city on September 12. By
September 16 he was moving in on the city. Confident of victory,
and believing that Maitland would be prevented from reaching
Savannah by Lincoln, he offered Prevost the opportunity to
surrender. Prevost temporized and asked for 24 hours of truce.
miscommunication about who was responsible for preventing
Maitland's movements, the waterways separating Hilton Head
Island from the mainland were unguarded, and Maitland was
able to reach Savannah hours before the truce ended.
Prevost's response to d'Estaing's offer was a polite rejection,
even though Lincoln had also arrived outside the city.
The French commander, rejecting the idea of assaulting the British
defenses, unloaded cannons from his ships and began a bombardment
of the city. The city, rather than the entrenched defenses, bore
the brunt of this bombardment, which lasted from October 3 to 8.
"The appearance of the town afforded a melancholy prospect, for
there was hardely a house that had not been shot through", wrote
one British observer.
When the bombardment failed to have the desired effect, d'Estaing
changed his mind, and decided it was time to try an assault. He was
motivated in part by the desire to finish the operation quickly, as
were becoming problems on his ships, and some of his supplies were
running low. While a traditional siege
operation would likely have succeeded eventually, it would have
taken longer than d'Estaing was prepared to stay.
Against the advice of many of his subordinates, d'Estaing launched
the assault against the British position on the morning of October
9. The attack depended in part on the secrecy of some its aspects,
which were betrayed to Prevost well before the operations were
supposed to begin around 4 am. Fog caused troops attacking the
Spring Hill redoubt to get lost in the swamps, and it was nearly
daylight when the attack finally got underway. The redoubt on the
right side of the British works, had been chosen by the French
admiral in part because he believed it to be defended only by
militia. In fact, it was defended by a combination of
militia and Scotsmen from Maitland's company, who had distinguished
themselves at Stono
The militia included riflemen, who easily
picked off the white-clad French troops when the assault finally
got underway. Admiral d'Estaing was twice wounded, and Polish
officer Kazimierz Pułaski
, fighting with the
Americans, was mortally wounded. By the time the second wave
arrived near the redoubt, the first wave was in complete disarray,
and the trenches below the redoubt were filled with bodies. Attacks
intended as feints
against other parts of the
British position were easily repulsed.
After an hour of carnage, d'Estaing ordered the retreat. On October
17, Lincoln and d'Estaing abandoned the siege.
The battle was one of the bloodiest of the war. While Prevost
claimed Franco-American losses at 1,000 to 1,200, the actual tally
of 228 killed and nearly 600 wounded, was severe enough. British
casualties were comparatively light: 40 killed, 63 wounded, and 52
missing. Sir Henry Clinton wrote, "I think that this
is the greatest event that has happened the whole war", and
celebratory cannons were fired when the news reached London.
In 2005 archaeologists with the Coastal Heritage Society and the
LAMAR Institute discovered portions of the British fortifications
at Spring Hill, the site of the brunt of the combined French and
American attack on October 9. The find represents the first
tangible remains of the battlefield. In 2008 the CHS/LAMAR
Institute archaeology team discovered another segment of the
British fortifications in Madison Square.
This event is commemorated each year by
on General Pulaski Memorial
- Morrill, p. 60
- Morrill, p. 64